The House of Representatives has approved rules for the next, public phase of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's dealings with Ukraine, a process that will culminate in the Judiciary Committee considering whether to bring charges against him.
The divided vote on Oct. 31 marks a significant step toward what would be only the third impeachment in U.S. history. President Richard Nixon resigned as the House was considering articles of impeachment.
It comes a month after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the start of “an official impeachment inquiry” into President Donald Trump, following revelations that he had urged Ukraine to investigate one of his top rivals for 2020, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Republicans continue to insist that the inquiry is a sham and after the most recent vote, Trump tweeted: "The Greatest Witch Hunt In American History!"
What comes next?
Articles of Impeachment First Drafted in the House
Two presidents have been impeached, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1896, though in the end neither was removed from office. In both instances the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives investigated and then recommended articles of impeachment to the full House.
In this case, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi directed six committees that were already investigating Trump — Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, Financial Services, Oversight and Reform and Ways and Means — to proceed under the umbrella of the impeachment inquiry. House members can declare a charge of impeachment on their own, though the Judiciary Committee has typically had jurisdiction over impeachments.
On Oct. 31, the House approved new rules going forward by a 232 to 196 vote, with the majority of Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans voting against. The Intelligence Committee will open its proceedings and prepare a report of its findings, which will be turned over to the Judiciary Committee to consider articles of impeachment. The president is given due process rights and Republicans the chance to subpoena witnesses, but can be overruled by the majority.
Republicans, who had been demanding more transparency, say the new regulations remain unfair to Trump.
“The evidence we have already collected paints the picture of a president who abused his power by using multiple levers of government to press a foreign country to interfere in the 2020 election,” House committee leaders said in a statement. “Following in the footsteps of previous impeachment inquiries, the next phase will move from closed depositions to open hearings where the American people will learn firsthand about the president’s misconduct.”
The full House would have to approve articles of impeachment for the process to then move to the Senate. The inquiry could also end without charges.
What Is an Impeachable Offense?
The U.S. Constitution spells out “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” as cause to remove a president from office. It does not define “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but the phrase comes out of British common law and referred to crimes by public officials against the government. An offense does not have to be a criminal act.
How Do Impeachment Inquiries Begin?
Some Republicans have argued that Democrats need a vote for the impeachment inquiry to be valid. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone told Pelosi in a letter that because the administration had not voted on the inquiry it was “constitutionally invalid and a violation of basic due process."
Pelosi said no vote was necessary.
The Constitution says the House has the power to impeach but is silent on a process, and although the House did vote to authorize impeachment proceedings against former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, it does not have a rule requiring one.
A federal judge, in a decision on Oct. 25 allowing the House Judiciary Committee to see grand jury evidence collected during Robert Mueller’s investigation, ruled that the impeachment inquiry was legal. The Justice Department on Oct. 28 said it would appeal the decision and the decision is on hold.
“Even in cases of presidential impeachment, a House resolution has never, in fact, been required to begin an impeachment inquiry,” Judge Beryl Howell of the Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., wrote.
The House Votes on Impeachment
If the House investigation results in articles of impeachment, the full House votes, either on each article separately or on the resolution as a whole. A simple majority of those voting is needed on at least one article to impeach, or formally charge, the president. It would take at least 218 votes to clear the Democratic-controlled House. The House would select members to manage the trial in the Senate.
The Senate Holds a Trial
Once the accusation moves on to the Senate, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would preside over a trial. The House managers would serve as prosecutors, while Trump would be entitled to defense lawyers.
During a trial, both sides can present evidence and call witnesses. The Senate has rules for an impeachment trial, but would have to negotiate how long it would last.
The Associated Press noted that it was not clear whom Pelosi would appoint as managers, but one lawmaker seems a good bet: Rep. Adam Schiff of California, a former prosecutor who has been leading the impeachment inquiry as House Intelligence Committee chairman.
After final arguments, the Senate meets in closed session to deliberate but then votes in public. A two-thirds vote of the senators present is needed for a conviction and removal from office. Republicans now control the Senate with 53 seats. No appeal is possible.
Trump could participate but that would be unprecedented. In the past, a legal team represented the president.
One wrinkle in the process: Could Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuse to hold a trial? The New York Times reported that it was unclear who had the authority to convene the Senate for a trial, Roberts or McConnell. McConnell has since told Senate Republicans to expect a quick trial.
And finally a question of fashion. Chief Justice William Rehnquist famously wore a special robe that he designed for Clinton's impeachment trial. According to Harvard Law School, he added four gold stripes to the sleeves as an homage to a character in Iolanthe, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Will Roberts follow suit?
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